Farrukh Dhondy | Gender equality and literature: are we going too far?


Literature was to be judged by its literary skill and, absolutely, by its application of humanitarian, humanitarian and egalitarian values.

Years after being in this vibrant and inspiring place, a reporter asked me “What, in one sentence, is the most valuable thing you learned in Cambridge?” I don’t know if it was through deep intuition or simple frivolity that I spontaneously replied: “I thought that one poem is better than another.
I think, nice reader, that at the time I was resolutely against what I considered “subjectivism”. I was firmly of the opinion that there were objective truths and that people who thought they could interpret reality as they saw fit were misguided and would go into mourning elsewhere.

Arrogant? Yes, but vanity was born out of my dedication to the school of literary criticism founded by FR Leavis, whose books I read and the lectures I attended at university. His claims were an epiphany – a turning point in literary criticism. He and his followers (yes! It was a sort of cult of exclusivity) formulated criteria for the analysis and judgment of literary works. Leavis’ critical appraisals used the tools of language – is a metaphor alive? Does it appeal to the senses? – to assess whether a novel, a play or a poem, has deployed literary skills to lay bare the complexities of human emotion and to defend the right, in humanitarian rather than religious terms, to be moral. This would lead a Leavisite to champion works such as Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, and, though not knowing it, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata.

Leavis, controversially, has formulated a “canon” of English literature. Through several books, he has attempted to explain why one novelist is “better” than another, why the work of one writer advances human values, while another titillates the reader with intrigue and even acute observation.

What was not present in the critical position of the Leavisite school was some political bias. Literature was to be judged by its literary skill and, absolutely, by its application of humanitarian, humanitarian and even egalitarian values.
But times are changing. Leavis, in his great and enduring works defending writers, did not even include a single black or Asian novelist or poet. He was probably unaware of their existence. Today, nice reader, an academic sent me notice of a book on an “alternative canon”. It’s an appreciation of books by black and Asian writers and I’m told my books are one of them.

Wow! Good! But then I think I have to examine this “canon”. I would be flattered to be anywhere near Joseph Conrad or VS Naipaul, but who are these “greats” with whom I share a register? Do they live up to what I meant when I said to the interviewer, “One poem is better than another?

And so, I am progressing, gentle reader, towards a confession. All of this semi-literary, perhaps boring, talk was sparked by a recent literary intervention by a person called Rachel Adamson, who is a member of an organization called “Zero Tolerance.” This organization is laudably a charity that works to end men’s violence against women.

The weapon chosen by Adamson to advance this cause is a review of a very popular children’s book called The Tiger Who Came To Tea, by Judith Kerr. All of my kids got copies of the book and enjoyed the story in which a tiger invades a mother and daughter’s family tea and eats it all. Then dad comes home, finds the food is gone, and takes the family out for a feast at a restaurant – that’s how I remember it.

Here is what language warrior Adamson says: “We know that gender stereotypes are harmful and that they reinforce gender inequality, and that gender inequality is the cause of violence against women and girls, like domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment.

All good. But then Adamson has to say how she will oppose that gender stereotype and land on this particular children’s book. Adamson wonders “why the tiger is not a woman or a neutral sex”.

I think even Adamson must know that the gender neutrality ideology has not touched the tiger species. And does she really want to prove that a female tiger’s abject greed outweighs her fraternity with the mother and daughter whose tea she invades and devours?

For my part, I have no doubt that there is no scientific, statistically valid, epidemiological or other way to resolve the nature / culture debate. Are women born to be baby carriers and therefore have different instincts and predilections than men who have evolved as hunter-gatherers? Or is this whole historical-anthropological-genetic landscape a fabricated illusion? Have all the cultures in the world that repress women or delegate a special role to them been part of an eternal male conspiracy?

Today’s world should be devoted to equal socio-political, educational and professional status of men and women. It goes without saying, even if it must be said in Afghanistan today and in most countries. There will be, as there has been and as everywhere in the world, a women’s movement working there.

I sincerely doubt that attacking the content of books such as Tiger, and even the works of Enid Blyton, will in any way help this cause. Are these writers inspired by nature, portraying in fiction what they see and invent – or are they the victims of a biased culture?

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